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HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
Kai Chandler Lois Crenshaw Gary Paul Wright Fortunata Kasege Keith Green Lois Bates Greg Braxton Vanessa Austin Bernard Jackson

George Burgess

July 2007

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Drug Addiction and Recovery

Going back to your drug addiction: Could you tell us a little bit more about your personal history? When did you start taking drugs?

I grew up with low self-esteem and I started drinking early, because it helped my self-esteem. I heard about heroin and I heard about other drugs. One day I came home, and my brother was under the influence of heroin. I told him he needed to go to bed, and he went to bed. The next morning my mother was screaming and hollering in the middle of the floor, and I said, "What's wrong?" And she said, "Your brother!"

I turned to my brother, and rigor mortis had already set in. Two weeks later, I stuck my first needle in my arm -- out of curiosity of what killed him. Out of ... you know, the drinking wasn't going to help me escape this pain. So that's how it started and it escalated through my entire life. It never got better. Every time I thought I had a grip on it, I really didn't. That's how it started. Then it got to a point that I lived to use, and used to live.

Who did you take drugs with? Was it just by yourself?

I started taking drugs with my best friend and then we had a circle. You know, we grew up and had ... it wasn't a gang; it was more like the Little Rascals. We were just ... friends and that whole little circle started at the same time. So we snorted and stuff like that. I have feelings of pain right now because three out of the five in the circle are dead now, from HIV and AIDS, from the direct result, again, of IV drug use. From also not ... some of them, in denial, and not really addressing it and taking care of what they needed to take care of.

I knew I had to recover and then start being responsible about taking my HIV medication. So I know some of them are not here because they didn't want that, didn't want to do that, didn't have the energy to do that.

How did you recover and begin being responsible?

I was almost murdered in 1996 -- June 17, 1996 and I went in the hospital. The doctor told me I had those four months to live.

But one of the things that really, really -- and I need to share this -- I had unprotected sex with the mother of my child. I never told her my status. Didn't even know how to tell her my status. Didn't even know how to disclose.

While I was in the hospital, waiting to heal, I had to disclose to her, and I had to watch her and my son, George, Jr., get the HIV test. That, then, at that moment -- with the combination of meeting my doctor, with the combination of meeting my Earth Angel -- which is Mary Lynn Hemphill in Atlanta -- my first social worker, first contact -- I decided to live. I decided to live.

Once I got the results back that they were both negative; that was one of my motivating factors. One, I needed to take care of George, Jr. Then, like I said, it's been a 10-year, 11-year journey to finally get all four of my children in a room together.

Activism

You just mentioned your struggle with disclosure. How do you decide whom to disclose to now? When to disclose?

I was called the poster boy of HIV and AIDS almost one year after my acceptance. I started volunteering at AIDS Survival Project in Atlanta, Georgia. I met my mentor, Dan Dunable. We were ... opposites attract. He was white and gay; I was black and straight. But he was my ... he's my ... I love him. I love him. We just buried him last year. But he got me interested in volunteering. I started volunteering and I decided to educate myself about this virus.

I was diagnosed really much at the right time, or something. What happened was, in 1996, the combination came out and I started taking the medications the way I was supposed to. I don't know if I answered your question. I started getting emotional. I thought about Dan. I apologize.

That's OK. You mentioned being a straight man. How do you deal with being a straight man infected with HIV? Do you find that people assume that you're gay just because you're positive?

Yes, they do. They assume that I'm gay. Or, one of my biggest challenges in Atlanta -- and I fight it all the time -- is this new stigma of "down low." It is a reality, but you're looking at every African-American man and saying, "Oh, he must be on the down low."

I work hard in the community in Atlanta. I'm one of the few heterosexual men that would stand up and talk about HIV and AIDS. You know, it' not about how they look or view me, and stuff like that. It's about me saving somebody else's life. I don't have to prove who I am. It's really a shame that more heterosexual men in Atlanta, or in that community, would not stand up and speak about it. Again, there are so many stereotypes and I think the down low is one of those new stereotypes.

When you say the down low, you mean...

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Men who are in relationships with females, and not saying they are, and having sex with men. When I was growing up it was called bisexual. Now it's this new thing, down low. But it has really put another stigma in the whole mix. I think sometimes heterosexual men were about ready to come out and start talking, and -- no put intended -- with the down low, now they retreated to a closet. I don't mean that in a negative way, but I think more heterosexual men should speak up. I love what the gay community has done, as far as advocating. I love ACT UP! I love the marches; I love the protesting. I love what they do.

Sometimes African Americans forget that what they did was borrow a page from Martin Luther King. He was one of the first ones to act up in our community. He was one of the first ones to march. He was one of the first ones to talk about social justice. He was one of the first. So, they borrowed a page. Why can't we just borrow the page back and do what we need to do? Just borrow it. Don't -- give it back. Just borrow it.

In your activism work, do you find a lot of men are on the down low?

I work with a lot of men and I think my primary focus is men that are in recovery. I do work in a predominantly gay organization.

Which organization is that?

AIDS Survival Project, in Atlanta, Georgia. But we always try to not carry that banner that we are a gay, white organization. We are a health organization. We are a resourceful organization. We are a caring organization. Obviously, we are small in number, but big in commitment.

When you're talking about a heterosexual man; they won't come into an organization because they feel that it's a gay organization. So they will not come and get help.

The folks that I do work with, if I think that they are on the down low; I don't question why they're in denial. I say, "To thine own self be true." Be who you are. If you are on the down low, so be it. It's a waste of a T cell to try to hide your sexual orientation.

It's like going to a buffet. People pick up different things at a buffet. Whatever you like at that buffet, that's what you like. I might not like it. So if you're on the down low, and that's what you do, come to grips with it, come to acceptance with it, and share it with whoever your potential partner is. This way there won't be any resentments or animosity.

What kind of work do you do with AIDS Survival Project?

I do a lot. I pride myself on being a treatment educator. I do treatment forums. I do lunch-and-learns. I do a lot of educational programs. I am a pre- and post- counselor and tester. We just initiated this new program called Peer to Adhere, and it's really one of those new concepts, where we have peer counselors go into different health departments of different hospitals and to private docs. We go in and we ask for a referral from the doc, and what we try to do is just a lot of the work that their nurse would do. We do an assessment; see where they are, and where their acceptance is. Are they ready to adhere? Are they ready to go on medication?

During that assessment, we get that information back to the doc and then, at the same time, that newly diagnosed person is seeing somebody else HIV infected or living with AIDS, just like them. So they are more prone to open up and talk about it and stuff like that.

We just had a really good success story, where this guy was a Katrina survivor and he came to Atlanta and he found himself almost homeless. We worked diligently to find him housing.

So that's what we do. We know that in recovery, they have a saying, "The therapeutic value of one addict helping another." Peer-to-peer is one of the best treatments that somebody can have. So this Peer to Adhere program is really good.

Living with HIV, don't you get sick of talking about it and thinking about it all the time? How do you have the stamina and energy to be an activist and spend so much of your life on your activism?

Going back to AIDS Survival Project, the first program manager in their library was a gentleman. I came to volunteer one day and he was the program manager, and he was crying. He was in a wheelchair. I asked him what was the matter and he said, "I am so tired." He said, "I live this. I breathe this. I work this. My wife works this and she lives it. I'm just tired."

He was in early recovery. I was a newcomer, and I was saying, "I don't care what you're going through. No matter what, do not pick up." And he did pick up.

Drugs?

Yes. But what happened was that, again: Looking at people who show you what to do and what not to do, by looking at him I knew that I didn't want to use. I knew what kind of work I wanted to do and I was committed to it.

I have friends now who tell me, "George, you done gave as much as you can give, and just relax." One of my better friends, Terri, she'll say, "George, just stop."

Sometimes I feel like I'm like a shark in the water. You know, once I stop swimming, I will perish. So I continue swimming. You know, I continue swimming. I love service work. I look at AIDS as an acronym: Always In Divine Service; Always In Divine Space. So I like being of service.

What do you think are the biggest issues that need fixing in HIV today? What do you tell people that they can do to change the situation?

I think the biggest thing is that everybody stop pointing fingers. You know, you point at the politicians. You're pointing at the scientists. You're pointing at the drugs. You're pointing at the pastor. You're pointing at your neighbor. Stop pointing fingers, and let's try to come to the table with a dialogue, where we can get to some solutions. You know, because of funding, HIV has become sometimes a cutthroat situation. While you're cutting throats and trying to get your agency funding, you're losing sight of your clients. You're getting the money for the clients!

The churches are one thing where historically African Americans went for refuge. I have spoken at churches and every time I finish speaking, at least 10 folks come to me and say, "I know somebody that's living with HIV and AIDS." But I know they are talking about themselves, that they cannot go to their pastor.

You know, politicians ... Yes, we have to really kick ass and take names. Because they make it a political game. But it's all about us living. They'll come and they'll listen to us but only if it can support more votes for them! But after they get in office, it's like ... you know. If you look at the presidential debates four years ago, Edwards and them; they didn't know a thing about HIV and AIDS. Now, this year, I just watched a debate. Oh, they was on. They did some homework. But why did they do the homework? Because they really internalized and know what's going on in America? Or do they want to get some more votes?

Stop profiling. This disease has not changed. I mean, 40,000 people are still getting infected. We are over a million people in this country. That thing: I'm going to send so much money to Africa ... and it's not getting there. I think, just stop pointing fingers. If everybody would lift their voice, if everybody would take a step in the right direction, I think we'll be better. And what are your motives behind doing it? If your motive is just for self-centeredness and get back what you can get back, it's not working.

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This article was provided by TheBody.com.

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